American Airlines Says They Love Unionization, But Unions Don’t Love Them

When unions at American Airlines threw in with management at US Airways in their takeover attempt during American’s bankruptcy that seemed naive. US Airways workers stood to gain a great deal as salaries would be bought up to higher American levels. However the idea that new management would be beloved by unions seemed at odds with their history. At US Airways there was never even a combined pilot contract achieved following the 2005 merger with America West.

American Airlines has said they want to take care of employees so employees take care of customers, although many employees are clearly unhappy with the company.

The airline has made clear that flight attendants aren’t responsible for doing more work as they roll out new products. Although that’s not how flight attendants see it especially with premium economy where staffing models treat those passengers like regular economy.

The carrier has cracked down on flight attendants renting out their seniority. They’ve imposed a new discipline regime. Flight attendants have significant concerns with the airline’s profit sharing.

There’s almost a schizophrenic approach, not wanting to do anything to rankle the front line while still wanting to change their business practices. And it hasn’t succeeded in achieving the sort of happy work force that takes care of customers they’ve talked about. If anything American’s management suffers from Munich syndrone, failing to learn the lessons of 1938 that appeasement increases aggression.

This week American’s flight attendants picketed corporate headquarters.

Among the Issues we are extremely concerned about:

  • Improperly Programmed/Failed New Scheduling Systems
  • Punitive Sick Policy Effective October
  • Toxic Uniforms Still Making Us Sick
  • Fume Events / Unhealthy Cabin Air
  • Optimizer Creating Inhumane Work Conditions

The carrier gave out employee raises but can’t get a mechanics contract done with with outsourcing a sticking point. Maintenance is now dragging down the airline operation.

On Thursday American’s Executive Vice President of People and Communications Elise Eberwein said, “I can’t imagine why a company would fear unionization or fight it, [t]hat’s old-school thinking.”

“We have 27,000 flight attendants, and you can’t possibly synthesize all those views without some mechanism to bring them forward,” Eberwein said.

A few years ago, reservations agents wanted to add stand-up, sit-down desks, an issue that came up in a meeting with union leaders, she said. The company made the improvements.

That’s a view perhaps most closely associated in the industry with Pat Patterson, United Airlines President from 1934 until 1966 (he became President after his boss was banned from the industry as government mail contracts were returned to airlines in the wake of a disastrous effort at military trasnport of mail in the wake of the Air Mail Scandal).

Patterson believed that unions were closer to the needs of workers than managers, and could best manage things like scheduling for the airlines.

American Airlines has unions so I suppose it doesn’t make sense for Eberwein to say anything else. But the suggestion that you need a union to ‘synthesize’ dispersed and tacit knowledge from employees simply flies in the face of reality.

By the way Delta’s primary competitive advantage is its techops which keeps older planes not just flying but flying on time. They’re non-union, as are Delta flight attendants who provide a higher level of service overall than American crew. Delta offers greater profit sharing, and currently higher pay than American gives its mechanics (though American says they would happily sign the Delta deal).

Southwest of course is unionized but they still manage to fire poor performers. That way other employees do not have to work beside shirkers and pick up their slack, and aren’t demoralized seeing colleagues rewarded just as much as they are despite not putting in the effort.

Employees need to be paid fairly if a company is going to retain them and get top performance. But that’s not enough. People need to feel like their work matters that it’s part of a larger purpose. And they need to like and respect their colleagues.

Seniority in scheduling and pay has a lock-in effect, it doesn’t just protect the jobs of underperformers it creates a set of golden handcuffs that prevent good employees from leaving for a company where they’d be happier — since they’d give up pay and priority to start at the bottom somewhere else. People stay in unhappy positions feeling they have little choice within their industry.

At American you don’t hear much about ‘going for great’ anymore and a year ago the mission of the airline was described as never losing money again which hardly inspires the front line.

As we enter Labor Day weekend, it’s important to remember that union shop or not management cannot abdicate its responsibility to select and retain the best talent while transitioning out employees who aren’t a good fit for the company — ensuring that everyone inside the business is able to respect the contributions of their colleagues. And management has to set a vision that inspires employees to be their best.

That may be easier to do in a non-union environment, but it’s also not impossible in a union one, provided that negotiations are approached from a perspective of giving each employee their due and not outsourcing management of the workforce to the unions themselves. We save how that worked out in Animal Farm.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. AA bean counter management excels at one thing….delivering shareholders added value through cost cutting, no matter how it affects it’s costumers or workforce. Anything other than quarterly earnings and mngt bonuses don’t matter to them, despite their propaganda.

    AA management is great at copying. Actually managing is not in their playbook

  2. Despite your dislike of unions, they are now more necessary than ever. With there being no large organized group of airline customers to try to counterbalance corporate greed, and the government certainly doing to nothing to rein in AA, unions are all we’ve got to mitigate the corporate behemoth. As to your Delta example, the Delta people would be paid much worse if the unions weren’t pushing for better terms with the other airlines. Delta pays better to specifically avoid becoming unionized, which is nice, I suppose, but done with zero altruism. Thus the unions do good on another front by garnering better wages even at nonunion airlines.

  3. AA needs to get a Grip That their Employees are NOT Happy…. neither LAA or LUS have ever cared for Parker and his Cronnies….. it Is only the former Am West people that ever said anything positive about Him. I hear it regularly from Employees. the LUS folks despise His Cheapness

  4. A company that can’t manage employees with a union probably won’t fare much better without one. Its just that management decisions won’t be challenged as overtly when employees are not represented.

    Seniority systems have positive effects in addition to the potentially negative ones Gary mentions. Seniority systems are an inexpensive employee retention system compared to pension plans. Retaining employees is good. Companies with low employee turnover generally perform better. Seniority systems also protect companies and employees from potentially discriminatory actions by lower-level supervisors (and usually make the supervisors’ lives easier to boot). Furthermore seniority systems can eliminate productivity draining friction in the workplace when employees suspect favoritism in job assignments, overtime assignments etc.

    Gary did not mention perhaps the biggest problem unions present for employers – work jurisdiction issues. Limits on who does what work can be a big drain on productivity. Unionization, though, does not have to lead to poor productivity. Southwest, the most unionized airline, has the highest productivity in the industry by some accounts.

  5. I do not have a problem with unions per se when the relationship between the company and the union is well-designed (which does not appear to the case at American) where both the Union and the Company are empowered to do what they both need to do to succeed.

    BUT, that being said, I have NEVER seen a company with a union where the employees are happy most likely because a typical union does what government tries to do: apply a blanket method of dealing with employees as if they are all the same. Does this work when the government applies it to citizens? NO. Does it work with companies/unions apply it to employees? NO!

  6. Doug Parker and Robert Isom do not know how to run a Major Airline!! They are used to the smaller America West and US Air!! Since the mergers, AA has gone down the tubes due to mismanagement of the likes never seen before!! The mechanics and ground workers have been in contract negotiations for 30 months. AA is making record profits but want to outsource most of the core work!! And more outsourcing of the mechanism jobs to overseas vendors who really don’t have a clue!! After what the workers gave up when AA went into bankruptcy court, their lead negotiator made the comment “that these workers haven’t sacrificed anything. In fact they don’t know what sacrifice is!!” This coming from someone who specializes in union busting and who AA has paid millions to compensate him!! What a slap in the face o ALL of the AA employees!!! This guy should be fired immediately!!!

  7. We kicked out Carty, Horton, and Arpey at AMR. American’s only true leader was Bob Crandall. Everyone else has been a greedy person. Crandall tried to bust our union and he failed. We stand strong against Parker’s latest attempt to take our job to the lowest level ever.

  8. Doug Parker has no respect from any of the airline unions or any of the Employees whether Unionized or Not . This management team has done nothing but take the airline down the shitter. Parker and this Management team have got to go. Newsflash Parker and your team passengers want video screens And Entertainment on the Aircraft

  9. Why insult all the ground workers by hiring thug like negotiators – one who announced last week that ground workers no NOTHING about sacrifices … Will take years to reverse the damage that man has done to worker relations …

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